- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 12, 2009

NEW YORK

The latest rough patch for CNN illustrates the two contradictions at the network’s heart.

In a brutal time for the news business, CNN is one of the few media organizations thriving while its most visible part in the United States - prime time on the flagship network - is hurting. The company has built its brand on nonpartisan reporting, while CNN’s audience tilts Democratic as much as or more than Fox News Channel’s audience leans Republican.

CNN’s average prime-time audience was third behind Fox and MSNBC last month, and it even was eclipsed by sister network HLN among younger viewers, according to the Nielsen Co. Perhaps more ominous, CNN finished well behind Fox when big news was breaking - Election Night and after the Fort Hood massacre. Big stories used to send viewers flocking to CNN.

Lack of prime-time success isn’t a new problem in a place that has long lived and died by the news cycle, as former hosts such as Aaron Brown, Connie Chung and Paula Zahn can attest. It seems more acute because CNN’s younger rivals were faster in figuring out a way to make appointment viewing at night.

“We sometimes scratch our heads and wonder, ‘Why can’t they figure this out?’ ” says former CNN correspondent Charles Bierbauer, dean of the College of Mass Communication and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina, describing his talks with another old CNN hand on his faculty.

MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, whose reruns often beat Anderson Cooper’s first-run newscast on CNN, mocked his rival for trafficking in news rather than analysis at night: “CNN seems to still think it is the primary source for its viewers, that they know nothing until they tune in. This is, ever increasingly, nonsensical.”

CNN, suggests critics take a narrow view of what it does.

The network could cast aside Mr. Cooper, Larry King and Campbell Brown for opinionated analysis and probably see its ratings go up, says Jim Walton, president of CNN Worldwide.

The benefit for one arm of the company isn’t worth the potential damage to others, he said.

CNN has built its business - encompassing international networks and wholesale news reports, mobile device services, a Web site, a wire service to print publications and radio - around the notion that it is delivering straight, nonpartisan news reporting, he said. The company has shown double-digit growth for the past few years and is on pace to continue. It is opening a new production facility in Abu Dhabi.

“People hear what’s being said, and it’s branded CNN, and [they say], ‘OK, that’s news. That’s nonpartisan, that’s factual, it’s timely,” Mr. Walton says. “That’s what we want to deliver around the world. We compete against a lot more than Fox and MSNBC.”

The rising fortunes of HLN means the company makes money off opinion, too. One of the reasons the network’s name was changed from CNN Headline News was to avoid having CNN’s name associated with that type of programming.

Statistically, CNN’s audience is far from nonpartisan.

Of those who say their main source of news is CNN, 46 percent identify themselves as Democrats and 13 percent as Republicans, according to a July survey by the Pew Research Center. (The rest say they’re independent or don’t identify themselves politically.) The same study found that Fox’s main source audience was 38 percent Republican and 18 percent Democratic.

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